Monday, October 18, 2010

Altruism? Bah!


Sitting in training for Boston elections wardens and clerks, I got a dose of I-want-mine overhearing the more elderly group in plastic seats across the aisle. What they want and need is deserved reality and anyone who differs or does not deliver is worthy of disdain...at best.

The immediate issue was the Social Security Administration's announcement that they would not bump payments in 2011 with a COLA (cost-of-living adjustment). That rationale that the Consumer Price Index has not triggered this boon had not satisfied my neighbor. To him, this would be not have been welfare or a gift on any level, rather payment of a debt.

Hence we can look into the basket of entitlement. It also contains the bastardization of the concepts of altruism, camaraderie and national sharing.

The rampant disdain with which generations slur each other with entitlement knows no rationality. Each cohort seems to hold to the double pretense that 1) they suffered and struggled and 2) the following generations merely want to take, take, take, without earning.

We find that the Korean War Era sorts, now in their 70s and 80s, have been the drivers for the AARP's demands. The concept to much of their literature and lobbying has been that it is morally wrong and indefensible to have the retired share the national pain, even following the devastating financial turmoil of recent years.

Those of us in the big, ole Boomer cohort might speak up, to our peril. We might remind the KW sorts that it has been the Boomers who have funded the seemingly endless benefits for both them and the WWII types with ever-increasing slices of income in withholding taxes as well as working longer and harder as a group than they ever did.

That gets reactions ranging not very far but including rage and denial.

Greediest Generation


Amusingly enough, it was the WWI and WWII generations who pegged the KW folk first with that epithet of the Entitlement Generation. The Tom Brokaw-dubbed Greatest Generation of WWII folk slandered their KW siblings and their own children with that, as the vast majority of the latter did not fight in or around Korea. Many WWII types stayed in and did though. Moreover, the younger KW folk did not struggle through the Great Depression, in that their parents and grandparents watched out for them and fed and housed them.

So the charge is that the KW generation wanted the glory and national sense of obligation that the WWII one demanded and got from a grateful America. The KW people don't seem to agree in the slightest. To them, everything they get is richly deserved.

Most of them worked and lived in that post-WWII America with its fantasy of a never-ending economic growth spiral. At least for white America, this was a time of padded positions, payrolls and pensions. After all, wouldn't we all keep getting better and better off — a banquet with no bill?

Fortunately for them, the Baby Boom provided decades of climbing payroll and Social Security taxes to support the rapacious desires of its elders. Many of both WWII and KW era folk are double and triple dippers, that is they took long-term military pensions, Social Security and Medicare payments, and private pensions.

Meanwhile, it has been Boomers and following generations or subgenerations that miss out. Vastly fewer companies offer any type of pension, they are supposed to work longer days for many more years to keep SS and Medicare funded, and they did not wildly procreate in a fantasy of a never-slowing growth spiral. Simply they don't have a huge group of their own children to ride on for the rest of their live.

There is a strong argument to make that the Greatest Generation in part and the KW one entirely should better be called the Greediest Generation. That is, too much is not enough and it better not slow down or stop. If there is pain to be shared, that should happen to others, to younger Americans.

Another amusing twist is how Entitlement Generation is such a great migrator. It is the hot potato of insults. From KW to Boomer to Gen Y to Millennials, everyone seems to claim it is the guys after them who are the lazy bums, undeserving types.

Give Me Mine


We may be ending the outrageously irrational stereotype picked up by Gen X and Gen Y types of the Boomers as destroyers. The meme seemed to be that Boomers had the good jobs and wouldn't give them up to the rightful new owners. Of course, that overlooks inconvenient facts, including that 1) the Boomers had to worker longer hours for more years since anyone after we stopped being an agrarian nation, 2) they paid and continue to pay for the preceding generations' needs and wants, 3) as a group, they simultaneously financed most or all of Gen X and Gen Y schooling while caring for their own aging parents, and 4) are looking a retirement without those niceties such as pensions.

So, back to the election training, the 70-something near me was livid about no COLA. His only example of rising costs was that his medicine has risen from $7 a month to $9. He depended on SS; what was he going to do?

After he ranted a bit, an even older woman next to him suggested that he go to Walmart or Walgreens and get on a program that would provide his drug at $5, as she had. The denouement that illustrates another example of the KW types was that he had. He was now getting his prescription at $2 a month cheaper than before. He was marginally better off. That was not as good a story as being wronged and short-changed though.

Let us take a moment to note the consistency of his generation. Keep giving to them until it hurts...you.

Who shares?


All of this leads to deeply underlying questions about why any person or group should share any resources they can gain. This is that key issue of altruism.

Psychologists, sociologists, economists and even very partial philosophic sorts like followers of Ayn Rand like what they consider the obvious, common sense view of kinship and self-interest. You watch out for your own kind (class, blood, even schooling related). That's a hard stop. It's allegedly natural and the only reasonable approach to living, working, and reproducing.

We know these wimpy types, like hippies then and Unitarian Universalists then and now, exhibit the unnatural act of sharing and the more unnatural feeling of empathy.
Disclaimer: I am a long-time UU. That may explain much to many. In fairness, I should disclose that in puberty I was a Randist — Virtue of Selfishness, sexual/sexist drama and all. I got better.
Cinder-Heart Background: Wikipedia does a good job with links to altruism-related discussions. A more disturbing and immediately thought-provoking article appears in a recent The Nation on George Price. This genius of genetics caused reappraisal and ongoing discussion of why any person or group would benefit others instead of themselves exclusively.
The drawbacks to the larger society of self-interest are wide and deep.

Most obviously, looking out exclusively for yourself, your offspring, your frat brothers and such lessens society and the nation. We tend to plug in adequate or inferior folk, whether we are hiring someone, choosing a company officer or politician, or even buying one manuscript over another. Duplicated many millions of times a year, this smothers and robs us all.

Here is where altruism is at its weakest. The scientific and pop consensus has long been we watch out for our own. If our twit of a child is barely adequate for a position, we are certain to ignore the greater good of the company, shareholders and society to advance and protect our favored one.

There are a small number of less emotionally driven folk who hire and promote more rationally. Yet which of us has not been astounded by marginally competent or worse coworkers or bosses, many of whom seem installed by virtue of nepotism or similar sentiment?

Perhaps in some splendid — and rational and fair — future world, the boobs and bumblers will not displace those with better minds, skills and hearts. Lackaday, we have no cause to believe that is likely in any of our lifetimes.

Meanwhile, I suggest that whether we are engaged in work, volunteer activities or recreation that we be mindful. Appreciate the reasonable and effective you encounter. They truly are human treasures who enrich all who come into contact with them.


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